TENS of thousands of Syrians flocked to the ancient Omayyad Mosque in Damascus yesterday for the funeral of 44 people killed by suicide bombers, turning the occasion into a gigantic show of support for the embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
Charge and counter-charge swirled over who was behind the attacks last Friday night.
The United Nations voiced grave concern over the bombings, which marked an ominous step up in the violence that has rocked the Arab nation for nine months, claiming at least 5000 lives.
Thousands of people gathered to pay homage to the victims, waving the Syrian flag and kneeling in group prayer behind the coffins, which also were draped in the red, black and white colours of the flag. State television broadcast the funeral live.
The crowd appeared to be supporters of Mr Assad, facing an uprising against his regime. They chanted slogans of support, saying the victims were “martyrs” and shouting, “We want no one but Assad.”
Friday’s explosions, for which no group has claimed responsibility, marked the first appearance of suicide bombers in the uprising. Analysts warned that it could be the start of a dangerous phase, where armed militants could try to create chaos for their own interests.
The Syrian regime blamed elements of al-Qa’ida for the attacks, which occurred minutes apart in a high-security area of Damascus.
The opposition, however, has blamed the government for staging the attacks to make it appear as if Syria would fall into chaos if Mr Assad lost power.
A delegation from the Arab League is in Syria to investigate the regime’s crackdowns on the protesters and some critics said the attack could deter them from their mission.
At the funeral, the Religious Affairs Minister Abdel Sattar al-Sayyed read a statement from Christian and Muslim religious leaders “denouncing the criminal attacks on Friday … and the murder, destruction and sabotage” as part of a “dangerous plot against Syria”.
“We call upon the Syrian people to be aware that Syria is being targeted, and affirm that we stand with them in the face of this plot. We reject any sort of extremism represented by terrorist organisations,” the statement said.
Leading Sunni Muslim cleric Said al-Bouti said he hoped the attacks would lift “the veils on the eyes of the Arab League … so that they see who is the murderer and who is the victim”.
But the opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council said “the Syrian regime alone bears all the direct responsibility for the two terrorist explosions”.
Adding to the confusion was what the Muslim Brotherhood said was a bogus website fabricated to resemble its own, which claimed yesterday that the group itself had carried out the attacks and promised more.
Hamas, a Sunni Islamist Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, condemned the bombings and called for a “quick” political solution to end the bloodshed in Syria. Hamas has its headquarters in Damascus, but diplomats say dozens of its operatives have quietly returned to Gaza from Damascus as the group scaled back its presence in Syria and gauged the uncertain future of Assad. Hamas denies such reports.